It’s a little strange to be previewing a game that’s already been released (the Japanese version came out in December of 2006). The Japanese release received high marks: an 89% on www.gamerankings.com. The only quantity that remains unknown is the English voice track, although I’ve read a positive report on a piece of it, and I would bet that Microsoft Game Studios will throw enough money at the localization of this high-profile title to produce a reasonably good voice track. Failing that, or for Japan-o-philes, those in the US (sorry, Europe!) will have the option of playing the game using the Japanese voice track and English subtitles.
The man behind Blue Dragon is Hironobu Sakaguchi, one of the founders of Square and the creator of its cash cow, the Final Fantasy RPG series. After his success with RPGs, Sakaguchi set Square to producing an expensive, extended cut-scene (okay, it was a movie), called Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. I saw this movie in the theater and enjoyed it, because I like futuristic action and computer graphics. I wasn’t thrilled with its mystical Earth-Spirit nonsense, but I recognized that as the price of admission for most Final Fantasy stories. Critics were not kind, however (www.rottentomatoes.com gave the movie a 44%), and the box office was downright brutal. Sakaguchi’s misstep humbled Square, forcing it to merge with its main competitor, Enix, whose biggest-selling franchise was the Dragon Quest RPG series. Sakaguchi resigned from Square after this episode, which leaves us at the current chapter of his career.
After his experiment with moviemaking, Sakaguchi decided to return to exactly what he was doing before: making traditional Japanese RPGs with solid production values. He founded the Mistwalker studio with the support of Microsoft. On his first project, Blue Dragon, he brought in key players from successful RPGs: Nobuo Uematsu, composer of the Final Fantasy music, and Akira Toriyama, creator of Dragon Ball Z and designer of the Dragon Quest 8 characters. When Blue Dragon was released in December, it became the fastest-selling XBox 360 game in Japan, which is to say it sold a paltry 135,000 titles. That’s not Blue Dragon’s fault, though; Microsoft’s market penetration in Japan has always been insignificant. It will soon be time to see how Blue Dragon does throughout the rest of the world.
The story behind Blue Dragon is the kind of traditional JRPG fare that has served Sakaguchi well. The main hero is Shu, a teenage boy; his initial companions are Kluke, a teenage girl, and Jiro, another teenage boy. They’re all longtime friends growing up in a small village, which is attacked annually by evil robots. During one of these onslaughts, the kids fight a giant, marauding, mechanical shark and ride it back to its mothership, where they battle their arch-nemesis: a completely purple, withered old man with a cane and thick-rimmed glasses. He sort of resembles a grape-flavored Mr. Burns from “The Simpsons,” and his name is Nene. How is this pronounced? I have no idea. Neen? Nay-Nay? Neeny? Either way, it’s a lame moniker for a world-destroying villain. “Darth Malak” or “Sephiroth” are good villain names.
“Nay-Nay” sounds like a toddler’s nickname for a beloved stuffed animal. In any case, Nene’s shadow, in the form of a giant purple dragon, does the fighting for him, and the kids are easily defeated and cast out of Nene’s ship. I can’t quite figure out how this next bit goes, but they are apparently magically saved and given mystical orbs of light that, when swallowed, cause their shadows to become battling monsters like Nene’s purple dragon. Shu assumes ownership of a blue dragon, Kluke acquires a blue phoenix, and Jiro gets a blue Minotaur. The kids are later joined by Zola, a tough and stoic mercenary girl with a bat shadow, and Marumaro, a silly, squat, cat-like child with a tiger shadow. The children go on to battle Nene’s whimsically designed minions and finally Nene himself in a bid to, of course, save the world.
As is typical of JRPGs, you see all party members in cut scenes, but when they’re navigating the environment, they are all represented by Shu. In addition to walking, the party can fly quickly around the landscape in a spaceship. You can set warp points around the world, enabling conveniently quick travel. Unlike in the Final Fantasy series, when the party is on foot, enemies are visible on the field. However, just as Shu represents his party, a single monster on the field can represent several monsters.
Monsters on the field can be attacked, paralyzed, frightened, or simply avoided, before you join them in combat; you can even acquire a force-field that will automatically take out lower level enemies when you walk through them on the field, so that your party can avoid wasting time fighting monsters much weaker than them. You can attack a single monster or expand a circle around your characters by holding down the right trigger; any enemies caught inside this circle will be included in the battle. If you catch mutually antagonistic monsters within your circle, they will fight each other. You also gain temporary bonuses to your abilities when you chain together multiple monster fights.
Once combat begins, it is, of course, turn-based. You can strategically set the combat order for party members, and you can use a meter to time the effects of special attacks and spells so that they occur at the desired point in the attack order. As in Final Fantasy, attacks are often accompanied by lengthy, elaborate animations; these will be entertaining the first time you see them and increasingly irritating ever after, so let’s hope that they can be skipped.
The graphics in the game appear to be fairly impressive, although one reviewer complained that they were hit-and-miss: sometimes impressive, sometimes drab. Another writer claimed that there was a blur effect on everything a short distance from the main characters. The soundtrack appears to be in good hands, with Nobuo Uematsu doing the composing, but you’ll have to have tolerate cheesy Japanese rock songs during boss fights.
With Blue Dragon, Sakaguchi and Microsoft attempted to give Japanese gamers exactly what they wanted: another traditional Japanese RPG in the vein of Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, with improved graphics. Those of us in the rest of the world are simply an afterthought. There doesn’t appear to be much new or revolutionary here, but that’s not necessarily bad. If you like traditional JRPGs, you’ll probably like Blue Dragon. However, if you prefer serious, innovative, Western-style RPGs, you may want to get Mass Effect instead.